Archive by category "Odds and Ends"

The Shape

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

So many gardens live in the memories of my life journey. There was the garden of my youth in Montreal, where my mother painted a vibrant oil of me at 15, relaxing in a striped canvas chair amid the lush summer greenery. Adjacent to our garden was an empty lot where my dentist Dad planted vegetables – still a victory garden now that World War II had ended and he was back from a four-year tour in England (including hospital time for a serious injury). How we reveled in that garden! What can rival the taste of sweet peas snapped fresh from the pod? Or ripe tomatoes off the vine? Or the tallness of corn? What a change from wartime apartment living where our downstairs neighbor pounded on the ceiling with a broom if my sister and I were too noisy!

Then there were the beautiful gardens of my married life. So many of my children’s birthday parties were celebrated there in our first house on rue Capitaine Bernier (and later in the lush garden behind our Georgian-style house fronted by white-pillars in the Town of Mount Royal), complete with lollipops hanging from the willow tree, lots of delicious food, and happy splashings in the large, above-ground pool. So many loving people to share our joy as they lounged around our gardens, savoring the summer sunshine months in Canada, forming large circles the better to share their stories of pleasures past and present.

Years later, there was the lovely garden of my Toronto house. Not only did a fragrant rose garden centered in the middle of that expansive green lawn bloom every year in June and September of the decade I lived in that house with its stained glass windows, but the garden also backed onto a manicured city park dotted with walking pathways. It made my own garden seem vast. Only now my children were scattered in Montreal, Vancouver, and California. But they visited often. “It feels like home,” they would say.

Yet today, when I am asked if I miss Canada, this is what I miss: the close familial circles that marked the youth of my children, both indoors and outdoors, in the happy moments of our lives. I have recounted some of them in my book, Cryo Kid: Drawing A New Map. Many of those I wrote about in those gardens of long ago are gone from this world. My memories, however, still live on. And I am so fortunate that new memories are accumulating to augment – not replace – the remembrance of things past. I will never forget, for example, “The Shape” in my daughter’s spacious garden in Sherwood Forest, Los Angeles, where there is summer almost all year long — even when the California-born residents call it winter.  It is also the home of my grand-daughter, Samantha.

This is where The Shape has formed in the poolside patio under a canopy that shields it from the strong sun. It is composed of a large group of loving people gathered closely for ease of conversation – and just to be together — in a circle of comfortable chairs. It is a shape that has formed because they all love Samantha. The people who make up this Shape are all connected to her through the marvels of modern medicine. They are her biological family. Her natural mother is Janet. Her biological father – who, together with his wife Sara, has his own two children as well – Benjamin and Harrison — is called Jeff.  Samantha adores the young boys. (“They are my half-brothers, you know,” she is proud to tell people.) She has come to love Jeff and Sara too and the rest of the biological family. They are all part of The Shape that has formed in the poolside patio.

There is Ila, Jeff’s mother, and Allen, Jeff’s father, and Holly, his second wife. They are all Samantha’s biological grandparents. Then there is Andy, her biological aunt, and her partner, Larry. There is Bonnie, Sara’s kind mother, also thrilled to be part of The Shape, even though there is no biological connection, and Sara’s dad, Ken. Most important, there is the warmth of acceptance, of the open arms extended, and the belief that there can never be too much family, that there is lots of love to go around. And, of course, there I am too – Samantha’s natural grandmother. (Bert, Samantha’s natural grandfather, passed away two years ago.) Often too, there are Shelley, my daughter and Janet’s sister, and Ira, my son-in-law, with their two children, Joshua and Rachel. There is my daughter, Susan, also Samantha’s aunt and sometimes my daughters, Laura and Ruth, visiting from Vancouver, B.C.  We all have a good time eating and swimming and laughing together. Or just relaxing. In fact, all the people who make up The Shape are very happy to be here beside our pool in one grand circle.

The only being who is not so sure about this presence is our red-headed dog, Penny. She is a wavy Labradoodle, half poodle and half Australian Lab. Normally, with those two halves kicking in, she has enough energy to fuel a rocket ship. Now she is quivering somewhere between suspicion and caution. She has just emerged from the side door that exits our kitchen with the expectation of jumping joyously into the pool. Instead, from the other side of the garden, she spies something unfamiliar. An awesomely large, circular, closely held Shape! Its back is turned to her. She has never seen anything like it before.

What strange thing could be lurking in our garden? She can’t make it out from afar. It’s certainly not a squirrel. Much more ominous. So she surreptitiously creeps forward, step by step, her body gradually lowering closer and closer to the ground. Now she is on her belly, moving forward bit by bit like a soldier in combat. Even though she is really scared now, she will protect her family. Her green-brown eyes narrowed, emitting a low growl, she surveys The Shape.

But to Penny’s surprise, The Shape turns itself around to welcome her into its circle. Oh, these are people, after all, loving people. Penny likes people. She licks hands and faces to welcome them. In return, there are lots of loving pats and hugs. Of course, she is given some treats for being such a good guardian. Everything’s okay. Penny can jump in the pool now and splash around without any worries, and The Shape can come anytime to her sunny garden in Los Angeles. And have they seen the roses (and oranges and lemons) this year?

Wishing you all, friends old and new, much happiness in the gardens of your own lives, and in whatever pathways you choose to follow, and many blessings in the calendar year 2019!

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

FYI: A new Steinsalz Torah in English and Hebrew

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

From Darkness to Light

For the last couple of years, I have been receiving an online daily Talmud excerpt (in Hebrew Daf Yomi) from the Aleph Society – in English! It is available in Hebrew too. What’s remarkable are the clear and brilliant insights from Rabbi Adin Steinsalts. Now, under the auspices of the Koren Publishers, he has just published an English/Hebrew text of the Torah, accompanied by his own commentary.

For example, how long is the day that Genesis defines? Why does darkness precede light??  Aleph just sent out the following online sample of this great rabbi’s thinking:

“Reading from the very first lines of Genesis, he [Steinsaltz] asks: Where does the day begin?

Intuitively it begins with morning’s first light…The biblical account of Creation, however, indicates that the unit of time known as day begins in the evening, so that darkness precedes light…The day begins with the evening and continues through the morning light, just as the beginning of all existence was hidden in its absence. This idea also conveys a message of hope: From a dark and concealed beginning light shall emerge.”

This Torah text  (Hebrew and English text on opposite pages) with  commentary and letters large enough to read easily will be available or purchase online after Simchat Torah. A complete version of the Tenakh is planned for 2019.

Terumah: The Tabernacle Within (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

Terumah: The Tabernacle Within (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

“Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Although the words “Ark” and “Tabernacle” are sometimes used interchangeably, the Tabernacle is actually what houses the Ark of the Covenant (which in turn houses the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and which was portable through the desert). In Parshat Terumah, which takes place well after the Golden Calf episode has subsided, there is a divine awareness that the ancient Israelites needed to have a place to worship – a makom – in order to cement their identification as a people. So, guided by God’s very specific architectural instructions – and by the superbly talented artist that God has chosen, Bezalel – the people find and donate the materials to construct a beautiful setting where they can gather to worship and feel close to God. In later iterations when they actually enter the Promised Land, it will become a Temple.

Every time I read this parsha, I think of John Dryden’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he equates universal truth with beauty and beauty with universal truth. “That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Although Dryden didn’t study Kabbalah, beauty is high up on the Kabbalistic ladder of attributes.

And every time I study Terumah, I also think of the Toronto exhibition of recovered Yugoslavian Jewish art treasures, buried for 50 years to save them from the Nazis – the earth had been their protective tabernacle. Over a period of five years, I organized this exhibit (at the request of my good friend, the late Hon. Kalman Samuels, then Honorary Ambassador to Yugoslavia, now the former Yugoslavia). It took place in 1990, shown just before a horrific, new conflict broke out in that country. Smaller than the Czech collection, this display of precious Judaica was held at the beautiful, jewel-like, museum of the substantial Beth Tzedec synagogue. The famous Cecil Roth collection is permanently housed there. On this occasion, though, with the cooperation of the Museum of Zagreb (in Croatia) and the Jewish Museum of Belgrade (in Serbia), and lots of diplomatic help, the Yugoslavian Jewish art treasures, dating back centuries, were on view to the public for two months.

What especially took one’s breath away was the large collection of silk parochets – the embroidered or otherwise patterned curtains that had once shielded the Torah-containing Arks of so many synagogues throughout Yugoslavia – perfectly preserved and hanging in overwhelming splendor from the vaulted ceiling all along the grand stairway that led to the Beth Tzedec’s second floor. It was the inspiration of the museum’s curator, Judith Cardozo, to place them there.

Over the past years, I have traveled a good deal of the world as Guest Staff Rabbi for a prominent cruise line. Some of the places I have visited have been so marked by political strife, extreme poverty, and ugly graffiti, that I could not help thinking it was a good thing “the people” had their religion, their cathedrals and mosques, their beautiful places to which to retreat – and, in the case of Brazil, the frenetic music, dance and costumes of Carnival — in the midst of all this ugliness, or they would simply explode. Faith and beauty, if not truth, were their safeguards.

And, as portrayed by Terumah, in the desert where the ancient Israelites traveled on the way to the Promised Land, God realizes that it is time for the Jewish people to have a place of spiritual beauty – still a transportable one — where they can both worship and feel close to the Divine presence. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses.

For this undertaking, the people they will need to bring gifts of the the finest materials: gold, silver, copper; blue (obtained from specific snails), purple, and crimson yarns (probably wool because they held dye well), fine linen, and materials of the desert such as goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins. Fine acacia wood was needed. In addition, oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense were needed. And finally, gems like lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones for the ephods and breastpieces (of the priests’ garments) (Exodus 25: 3-8).

As we read these passages today, it’s amazing how detailed, how precise, God’s instructions are. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments in “Covenant and Conversation” (5777), the building of the tabernacle is, in effect, a symbolic micro-cosmos reflecting the exact precision of the universe. The instructions given to Noah to build an Ark to save a portion of the world and its creatures were similarly precise. Even the human body, the human genome, requires precision in the way the many details of the body’s composition work together.

Mystics have always understood that mathematics underlies the Torah – underlies the cosmos and every living thing, no matter how large or small. What is most important, in the end, is our interior tabernacle; that is the personal sanctuary we most need to furnish with the light of the menorah and keep it alive, even if we are in a far-away country, even if we don’t own a lampstand.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Inclusion: Yartzheit, 2017

Inclusion: Yartzheit, 2017 [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

a beautiful body is a lovely thing

an admirable value my sister didn’t

have a beautiful body she felt

left out I know what it did

to my sister inside b’ahavah

[1] On the Hebrew anniversary of the loved one’s death (the Yartzheit), special prayers are recited in the synagogue. Traditionally a memorial candle is lit in remembrance.

         ©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Looking for Positives…

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

If there is anything positive to emerge from the current, gut-wrenching television coverage of Nazi flags and slogans, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes, torch parades with uncovered faces, and violence in the streets of America, perhaps it is this: that our millennial generation will begin to understand how manipulated hatred — grounded in fear, racism, and bigotry — can spread like a cancer through an unsuspecting population. Maybe they will understand why there must be a State of Israel.

Fortunately, there are gentler ways to teach about the Holocaust and its ramifications, as “Schindler’s List “and many other fine films have demonstrated – so that hopefully it will never happen again. Learning about the history of that time from the lips of those who experienced it is irreplaceable, of course, but there are fewer survivors now every year.

One such survivor – in that he escaped Germany on the cusp of the Holocaust – was the esteemed, late Rabbi Gunther Plaut. More than four decades after World War II, I met him in Toronto, Canada, where he had been the longtime rabbi, soon to become Rabbi Emeritus, of the highly regarded Holy Blossom Temple.* During the 15 years I lived in that city, I was a member there. I consider myself blessed to have attended Rabbi Plaut’s Torah Study classes each week..

It was the late 1980s, and I was deeply honored when he asked me to direct a reading of his one-act play about the Holocaust. Although he had written it long ago, he had kept it to himself for many years. Now he wanted to open his experience as a young man in Nazi Germany to his congregation.

The play was called “The Train.” It portrayed the painful, dislocated feelings of a new Doctor of Laws graduate from the University of Berlin in 1934, forced to leave his native Germany after the restrictive Nuremberg Laws (first introduced on September 15, 1935 but not enforced until after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) prevented him from practicing law. Even worse, Jews were stripped of their citizenship.**

The young lawyer represented in the play was, of course, our esteemed rabbi, Gunther Plaut. The conflicted feelings expressed were his own as he left family, friends, his now denied means of making a living, and the country he once loved for America. Luckier than most, he had gained sponsorship to rabbinic studies in the U.S. There he would study Jewish law.

As the war came to a close in 1945, Rabbi Gunther Plaut would be among the army chaplains who participated in liberating the concentration camps, the death camps, in Europe. It was an experience he would never forget. And he would go on to become a great rabbi, one of the pioneers of the Reform movement in Canada and regarded internationally as a highly erudite author. His landmark book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, is still widely used today.

When we mounted Rabbi Plaut’s play, he was truly thrilled to be cast as the Narrator (he had thrown out a few hints that he’d like to do it!), whose commentary was a hallmark of the play. Thespian members of the congregation filled the other roles, and one of the congregational members was a talented harpist who played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. When the soft cadences of her harp accompanied his narrations, shivers went up and down my spine. The play was extremely moving for the audience. For Rabbi Plaut, I think it was cathartic to have the feelings of his younger self, buried for so many years, enacted on the stage – and shared with the receptive, loving members of his congregation. The audience – the auditorium was packed — watched the performance with tears in their eyes and gave it a standing ovation when it ended.

When he retired, the Law Society of Ontario awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, a thoughtful and sensitive replacement for the degree he was forbidden to use as a young man in Nazi Germany.***

The Holy Blossoms refer to the tender young shoots, the students who study Torah.

** Prior to the passing of the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, The Law for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which passed on April 7, 1933, excluded non-Aryans from the legal profession and civil service. The Nuremberg Laws two years later codified the racial theories and ideology of the Nazi party. The first two laws passed in 1935 were the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Jews (defined racially rather than religiously) were stripped of their citizenship, and the new laws had a devastating economic impact on the Jewish community as well.

*** The following is a narration from the dramatized The March of Times radio series about the Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938:

NARRATOR: “Tonight, hour after hour, by short-wave wireless through the ether and along the cables undersea, the news piles up from the capitals of Europe…world-shaking, momentous news that sends Britain’s grave Prime Minister flying to Adolph Hitler and President Roosevelt hurrying back to Washington…the grim, portentous news that Sudeten Germans are in armed revolt, and behind every dispatch the mounting fear that the field-gray German regiments, mobilized and ready, may march into Czechoslovakia. All this week, day after day, and every hour of each day, the news poured in…and tomorrow and all next week, news will come from London, from Paris, from Prague, from Berlin. And as the headlines record each flying fact and rumor, United States citizens watch and wait and try to understand” (“The March of Time: Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938,” Generic Radio Workshop Script Library (